Dad and I finally took the cemetery tour as planned the second weekend of July. We talked several times during the week leading up to our Saturday departure to finalize the logistics and our itinerary. Dad took his car to be detailed and to get the tires fluffed up in preparation for the 400 mile drive, very considerate of him given that the inside of the windshield was so coated with tar and nicotine one could hardly see out. At least there was no overflowing ashtray to contend with, newer cars no longer having such features, and which (thank God) necessitated Dad lowering the window every time he smoked a cigarette.
At dinner Friday evening Dad allowed as how he wasn’t too keen on taking this trip, even though he did want to visit the cemeteries and see his old haunts one more time. It seemed the physical and mental preparation of getting ready and actually making it happen were almost more than he could deal with, even though about all he took was a change of underwear, a toothbrush and a carton of cigarettes packed into his well-beaten leather duffel bag that he and Mom had bought in Mexico many moons ago. Additionally, I was planning to do all the driving, my daughter Liz and son-in-law Justin would feed us dinner and put us up for the night in very comfortable accommodations, so all Dad really had to do was ride along and navigate.
Despite our apprehensions, (not unfounded, as it turned out), we set out on a glorious Wisconsin summer morning in Dad’s sweet-riding although much-maligned Cadillac, heading for the coulee region of western Wisconsin from whence my parents hail. I had thrown in a hiking pole (not a cane!) just in case Dad would acquiesce to using such an assistive device while stumbling around on uneven ground in cemeteries. He did not acquiesce, nor did he fall at any cemeteries. We drove along companionably, commenting on the beautiful weather, the lovely rolling countryside, the farms, the traffic, the good road, politics, Mom, the family–that is, our usual topics of conversation. Almost every town we passed sparked some memory in Dad about various shirttail relations, where he bought his first dental chair, high school football games, etc.
Menomonie was our first destination. Dad was born in Menomonie on December 17, 1933 in what I had been told was a nursing home. The building is still there, a large Victorian house that appears to be very well maintained or restored, and according to the sign out front, still serves women’s health in some fashion. We rolled through Menomonie past the UW-Stout campus where both my grandfather and my sister Kate had gone to school. I learned that Grandpa had never graduated from high school, but eventually went to Stout to become an Industrial Arts teacher. He taught in different towns around Wisconsin (Sheboygan and Wausau come to mind) and taught welding at a naval base in North Carolina for a couple of summers during World War II. Dad remembers sorely missing his father, whom he loved and respected greatly, during those summers when he was working out of state. As we drove through downtown Menomonie, Dad gleefully recounted how in high school he and his buddies would sometimes drive from Elmwood to Menomonie to drink beer illegally at The Flame. On at least one occasion they had even done so right before a Spring Valley vs. Menomonie football game, and despite being pretty blitzed, the Spring Valley boys had won, and no consequences for the drinking ensued. “Can you even imagine that happening today?” he laughed. Of course not. Today such behavior would be met with underage drinking tickets, court appearances, fines, suspension from the team and maybe from school, community outrage, parental dismay and embarrassment, possibly community service and AODA evaluations–all a huge overreaction to normal adolescent acting out and to no real avail, in Dad’s opinion.
We continued our journey on to Elmwood, a sleepy little burg of some 800 souls located in the coulees about 12 miles from Menonomie. Dad lived in Elmwood while attending high school in neighboring Spring Valley, and it is where my grandparents still lived when I was a child. I fondly remember visiting their home in the summers and at least once for Christmas. It has not changed much.
As we drove through the streets of Elmwood, Dad pointed out his grandparents’ and parents’ homes, the storefronts downtown and the establishments they had housed, the Catholic church, and he regaled me with tales of his youth. Especially memorable was the time he and a couple other lads had “borrowed” someone’s big wagon, pushed it all the way to the top of the big hill that descends into town on the road overlooking Butternut Park, whereupon they decided, as only 12-year-olds would, that riding it down the hill into town would be a grand idea. They hopped on and pointed the wagon downhill. They soon picked up speed and lost control, ending up “ass over tea kettle” in someone’s vegetable garden, unharmed but in deep trouble with the lady of the house over the ruined vegetables.
We drove up that hill and out of town to the mission church that stood high on a ridge overlooking the town. To my surprise, Dad remembered the kind priest that had served that rural parish and his own time as an altar boy there. That was the first time I can recall him having anything good to say about the Catholic church and its impact on his youth. That was our first cemetery stop at the Farm Hill Catholic Cemetery, where my maternal grandparents, Irene Katherine and Homer Orville Pence, and my uncle, Richard Homer Pence, are buried. We looked and looked for Dad’s maternal grandparents, James and Katherine Golden, who he figured had to be buried there, but we never found their graves. I remember visiting the Farm Hill cemetery before, probably with my grandmother to see her parents’ graves, and then again when we buried my uncle’s ashes about eight years ago.
The next stop was not far away–another rural cemetery, this one for the Methodists. That is where Dad’s paternal grandparents are buried. This cemetery sparked no memory in me, and the gravesite is much older.
From the Methodist cemetery we continued on to the town of Spring Valley, where my parents’ long journey together began. Dad showed me the corner by the bank where he saw my mom for the first time, his paternal grandparents’ home, which perches along with other old homes that are so overgrown now as to be almost invisible from the street on a steep hillside overlooking the downtown. Dad and his parents lived in that home for four years while his mom (Irene) took care of her father-in-law (Cassius), who became paralyzed after suffering a stroke. Seeing his grandfather lying helpless in a bed in the dining room for four years and watching his mother care for him left a lasting impression on my dad. We saw the high school that Dad graduated from. As far as I can piece together, he was on some kind of work and learn program at the end, where he worked at a lumber mill (?) in the morning and attended school in the afternoon. The principal, after some escapade that my dad and his friend “Punky Bud” had pulled, told Dad he “would never get a job except with a pick and a shovel.” Dad delights in telling that story and employs a thick, Norwegian accent when imitating the principal. Having grown up around a lot of “towheads” in the Spring Valley area, Dad developed a deep appreciation for Ole and Lena jokes and is a skilled ethnic joke teller.
Spring Valley experienced many devastating floods of the Eau Galle River during its history, the worst of which occurred in 1942 when my dad would have been eight years old. Although he didn’t live there at the time, the disastrous flood really shaped the town’s identity. When construction of a huge earthen dam was completed in 1968, thus ending the threat of further flooding and destruction and creating the Eau Galle Recreational Area, some wit remarked that the only problem with the dam was that they built it on the wrong end of town. Dad tended to agree, but nonetheless, now on this trip 65 years later, he waxed nostalgic about his years spent there .
From Spring Valley we wound our way north on some back roads toward River Falls, where Dad attended college for two years before going to dental school at the University of Minnesota. The roads have all changed, so we just followed our noses and eventually drove into River Falls, which also bore no resemblance to the place Dad remembers. He finally recognized North and South Halls, the only two old buildings he remembers being there, which now squat among many newer ones. His old boarding house was gone. The growth and transformation of River Falls amazed Dad, as did the traffic on the Interstate as we approached Hudson, Wisconsin and then the Twin Cities across the St. Croix River.
By the time we got to my daughter Liz’s house in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, Dad had had quite enough for one day, and it was only about 3:15 in the afternoon! We had had a lovely drive, reminisced much and enjoyed a beautiful day together. For this, the two of us are thankful and relieved. Mission accomplished. The great-grandsons greeted Grandpa Bill enthusiastically as we drove into their driveway.
What happened next is the subject of another post–I know, that’s a cheap trick, but this one has gone on way too long already and it’s overdue for publishing.